The Wii U Virtual Console is well and truly up and running, which its greatest supporters will say is a more-than-welcome boost of old-school goodies to fill out the Wii U lineup, and the greatest cynics may say it's another example of Nintendo mastering the art of selling very old rope. Based on the service's launch, there's probably merit to both sides of the argument, but we feel confident in saying one thing for certain — it certainly hasn't enjoyed the same buzz that we saw with the Wii Virtual Console.
Back when the Wii was still called the Revolution — which some still wish had been the actual name of the system — the promise of the Virtual Console was a genuinely exciting new idea. Prior to the announcement games from the good old days had become a preserve mainly of collectors, and would be played by those still happily hooking up these old systems to whatever spare TVs were handy. There'd be the odd remake, and there was always the potentially iffy practice of downloading ROMS — which can prompt never-ending debates — but generally there weren't fully authorised, convenient solutions.
The Wii Virtual Console changed that, and not only introduced a new audience to past generation classics but served as a useful new source for retro enthusiasts to build a new download collection. While pricing has been a regular source of contention, the service has provided an official and licensed way to gather these ROMS, with hardware specific features and controller support. It's also delivered key titles from old rival systems including the SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis and even others such as the Commodore 64; Hanabi releases also brought titles to the West that were previously Japan-only, which at just 100 extra Nintendo Points served as treats to those that hadn't been living the life as importers in the '90s.
Largely, then, the Wii Virtual Console has delivered as a fairly substantial, attractive collection of retro titles, and laid the groundwork that prompted us to recently write about the importance of the Virtual Console moving forward, on 3DS and particularly on the Wii U. The 3DS service has given us portable NES games for the first time, while delivering a modest range of Game Boy and Game Boy Color titles, while the Wii U service has arrived to give current owners some new content to enjoy with system extras such as off-TV play and Miiverse integration.
Those two features are nice, and go some way to make the latest VC's launch a fun and, yes, exciting occasion for many — check out the Super Mario World Miiverse community to see just how much Nintendo gamers love revisiting that classic on their new hardware. And yet, our contention is that the Wii U Virtual Console launch, despite the obvious excitement it brought on the back of the recent system update, has been modest — it wanted to be a brash fireworks display, with sizzle reels released by Nintendo to herald its arrival, but the show has fizzled out because of light rain and cloud cover.
There are two primary reasons, we feel, that explain why this Wii U VC launch doesn't have the buzz of its Wii equivalent: it's now the third Virtual Console so the concept is relatively old hat, but there's also a lack of fresh games. We appreciate that talking about fresh VC games is an oxymoron, but our point is that of the launch lineup, we've seen them all before. Heck, in the case of Mega Man our review tagline was as follows — "Fight, Mega Man, for everlasting re-release!". After all, we'd sampled its delights on Wii, then 3DS, and now Wii U. Even for those that haven't had the triple treatment, all of the games we've seen so far — from NES and SNES — have graced the original Virtual Console.
We've little doubt this will be resolved during 2013 and, hopefully, it won't be too late in the year before the promised Game Boy Advance titles arrive alongside Wii VC veterans from the Nintendo 64. The Game Boy Advance choice as a fresh platform is an interesting one, as 3DS ambassadors have already enjoyed ten GBA titles on the portable, so quite why the handheld isn't being revived on that system at the moment is for Nintendo to answer. There are question marks over other platforms, however, and we wonder whether Wii VC mainstays like Neo Geo and TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine will make the move to the new platform.
The biggest question mark hangs over the GameCube, of course. The Wii offered GameCube backward compatibility with the VC going up to the N64, so logically the Wii U's ability to play Wii games will be accompanied by GameCube titles on the eShop service. After encouraging noises and hints before the system launched, however, all has been quiet on that front. It may come with time — not all of the original services' platforms were there at launch, or even in the first year — but its absence may be a source of lingering disappointment for some.
It should be noted that Virtual Console games don't just happen — they're not ROMS casually dumped onto a server. For each release legwork is required, in areas such as producing digital manuals, integrating the code into the Wii U infrastructure and applying compatibility with the GamePad, other controllers and Miiverse. In that sense the slow and steady drip-feed of well-worn releases is to be expected, and we're also yet to see whether third parties are as enthusiastic about doing the work as they arguably were on the Wii; Capcom has thankfully stepped in to promise some SNES goodies. Despite all of this, the absence of any new titles in the launch lineup seems like a pity, at least from a veteran Nintendo gamer's perspective; we suspect most that currently own a Wii U — there are less than four million in the wild at this stage — fall into that 'veteran' category. The unique selling point right now is all about the GamePad and Miiverse, while Earthbound is one of the few — maybe the only — juicy new VC experience that we definitively know about so far.
There's one other minor complaint to highlight, as we're taking a look at the Wii U VC's early days — the implementation of the "upgrade" pricing. Unfortunately the Wii U eShop doesn't simply look at your Club Nintendo account (which is linked) to determine whether you bought a game on Wii, but checks for data that you've transferred from the old system. That means if you've still got your Wii rigged up to a TV and haven't committed to wiping it clean to transfer to Wii U, you can't claim the discounted rate. In theory this prevents a risk of someone flogging a Wii packed with games and claiming cheaper VC downloads on Wii U, but that's a paranoid perspective that penalises — or at least inconveniences — a number of gamers to stop a minority that would try and make a quick buck. In an era of data and user information being "in the cloud" and easy to move around on other devices, that seems a little archaic.
Overall, we suspect many are happy that the Wii U Virtual Console is finally here and giving a slight twist on the experience, while Europeans may simply be giddy at having 60Hz versions at long last. Perhaps it's lacked a buzz that something truly new can deliver, however. The Wii version was the first of its kind from Nintendo, and the 3DS brought us Game Boy classics — the first offerings on Wii U have, in comparison, simply been more of the same.
What have you thought of the Wii U Virtual Console launch? Has it been an exciting new feature for you, or has over-familiarity with the games offered been a disappointment? Sound off, as always, in the comments section.